Validating the accuracy and reliability of information we read online, both on the web and via email, is an essential literacy skill in the 21st century for adults as well as young people. An email I received this evening from someone in my family provides a dramatic case in point.

The email which was forwarded begins:

>
> This is fairly interesting…
>
> Who is Barack Obama?
>
> Probable U. S. presidential candidate, Barack
> Hussein Obama was born in
> Honolulu , Hawaii , to Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a
> black MUSLIM from
> Nyangoma-Kogel , Kenya and Ann Dunham, a white
> ATHEIST from Wichita ,
> Kansas .

The message goes one to assert that Senator Obama’s father is a “radical Muslim,” and Obama is a Muslim himself. The focus of the message is to create fear about a possible Obama presidency and generate opposition to his candidacy among voters.

These allegations are serious. I would like to think everyone who receives an email like this will take the 15 seconds required to do a quick Snopes.com check to verify the information. The fact that this particular email, and others like them, are regularly forwarded along every day by well-meaning but poorly informed Internet users is distressing. I had a conversation with someone in my office just last week about Senator Obama’s candidacy, and her comment was, “I’m pretty concerned over all that Muslim stuff.” I am pretty sure email messages like this one planted the false seed of uncertainty which was the root of her “concerns.”

A fast search on Snopes for “Who is Barack Obama” brings up a through explanation which reveals this email to be false and misleading. As usual, the Snopes.com authors go through the claims included in this email point by point and include an extensive list of referenced sources at the bottom of the article:

Urban Legends Reference Pages: Who Is Barack Obama?

Why do many people persist in forwarding along emails like this one, which can be VERY quickly debunked? I do not know all the reasons, but I suspect there are several keys:

  1. FEAR: Many people thrive on controversy and news which inspires or incites fear. Fear is a powerful motivator. When we allow ourselves to be directed by fear, rather than reason, we are naturally less able (physically) to make informed decisions and use logic. I think a primary reason people forward these types of messages rather than validating and debunking them is that they are AFRAID. Messages of FEAR often work. People get scared, and they are therefore malleable in the hands of the architects of the propaganda who wrote and disseminated the false, misleading, and fear-encouraging messages in the first place. Forwarding this message to other people is EXACTLY what the anti-Obama Presidency author of this fictitious email wants people to do. Those who allow themselves to directed by their fear play right into the hands of others who seek to manipulate and distort the truth to serve their own ends.
  2. LAZINESS: It’s easier to click the forward button and the send button rather than think critically. Critical thinking takes brain power. It takes energy. Many times, I think people (both young and old) tend to be lazy. Should I check out that claim with a quick trip to Snopes? Should I do a Google search on that message before I forward it to my entire address book? Of course you should. To fail in that requirement is to fall short in our obligations to support the dissemination of accurate and valid information. Sadly, laziness in thinking (or NOT thinking) is common in our society. This is not just true in many schools, it’s true of lots of people who long ago left the classroom.
  3. IGNORANCE: People don’t know how to validate information properly. Issues of fear and laziness aside, this reason is possibly one of the most pressing that we, as educators, should take seriously. Are we teaching our students (and learning with our students) how to validate information properly and thoroughly? Have we considered ourselves instruments of a dishonest propaganda machine, if we thoughtlessly forward on emails like this one to others? I wrote the article “Digital Literacy NOW!” for the TechEdge in Septebmer 2003, but it is every bit as applicable today in 2008 as it was five years ago.

Who will carry forward this banner of media literacy, critical thinking, and our ongoing need to validate information where you live and work? If not you, then who? Who will tell your relatives? Who will tell your principal? Who will tell the senior citizens living in your community, who may be among the most susceptible to inflammatory and misleading emails like this one?

Media literacy is the responsibility of us all. Accept the banner, and carry it forward. Whether or not it’s on your written lesson plan for today or tomorrow, it’s an essential skill that simply can’t wait till next year.

Italian Peace

I have cross-posted this entry to my blog on Barackobama.com.

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On this day..

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  • http://www.futura.edublogs.org Carolyn Foote

    Wes,

    This is an excellent and important post.

    When we bat around the need to teach better information literacy–this sort of email shows why it is so critical in a democracy that the students we raise have good literacy skills.

    Thanks for raising our consciousness!

  • http://www.understandmedia.com Nick Pernisco

    Media literacy is such a critical and essential skill for the 21st century. Many media literacy educators stress teaching kids how to recognize manipulation in TV and commercials, but almost never focus on the media’s immense impact on adults. Adults are also subject to media manipulation, especially when they least expect it like the e-mail you describe.

    I run a website called Understand Media about media literacy, with original articles, resources, links, videos, podcasts, and a (as of late) politically charged blog. Check it out if you have a chance, and maybe you’ll consider linking to it if you find it interesting?

    Thanks, and keep up the great work.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Thanks for the comment and the link to your site, Nick. I’ve saved it to my social bookmarks and will check it out in greater detail– I’ve also subscribed to your podcast channel via PodNova.

  • http://www.futura.edublogs.org Carolyn Foote

    Wes,

    After looking at Snopes with another teacher, I’m wondering if other fact checking
    sites might be more worth recommending. Although it does document the information,
    the presentation seems very flashy and commercial, and so I’m wondering if some
    of the other “fact check sites” might be worth exploring as well.

    None of that negates the excellent point of your post or the fact-checking abilities
    of Snopes… Just wishing it were a little more “serious” in it’s presentation.

  • http://ripplingpond.wordpress.com kathy shields

    Wes,
    I am always surprised when I get emails like the one above because it reaks of rumor and character defamation causing me to become suspicious of the source. I use snopes to confirm it for myself and also to send the link to the people who are spreading what is essentially malicious gossip, a terribly endearing story about a missing child (who doesn’t exist)or war propoganda (testimonials from troops who do not exist). I just think some people prefer to believe in a sensationalized story because carrying a secret message is gives purpose and is easily accomplished with the click of the mouse. I prefer to seek the truth when possible.

  • http://www.mctoonish.com/blog Heather Ross

    Great post, Wes. I watched the CNN coverage as the results came in from Iowa and noted that Bill Bennett referred to him as Barack Hussein Obama. Subtle, but will seep into people’s minds like product placement in movies and plant seeds of doubt.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Carolyn: I’d love to know if other sites similar to Snopes ARE available. It’s the best one of its kind of which I’m now aware.

    Kathy: I think you’re right about some people preferring “sensationalized” and “secret” messages. Part of human psychology I guess, but still something we should struggle to combat. I certainly prefer the truth as well. That is a good way to frame this in discussions with younger students as well as older adults: We should be passionate about truth and sharing truth, not fiction.

    Heather: I am disgusted that Bill Bennett would stoop to that level. Good grief. The stakes are high, so some people are going to “pull out all the stops,” even if it means doing things that are unethical. Sad to hear about that from the author of “The Book of Virtues,” which I incidentally love and loved reading from to my kids when I taught 4th grade.

  • Vet

    Wes,

    I really enjoy reading your posts and listening to you podcasts on education. I am bordering on whether or not to unsubscribe because of your political posts lately. Your politics are not why I subscribed and read your content. Please separate the two.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Vet: I appreciate your feedback and do want to be sensitive to your point of separating politics from issues of learning, educational technology, and other unrelated topics, including faith and religion. Yours is the first direct comment I’ve received about this (as a written comment, my mother has talked to me about this in the past too), but I sensed this was something I needed to do over a year ago with my posts focusing specifically on Christianity and my faith journey. For that reason, I created in August 2006 the team blog “Eyes Right.” Since we are in the midst of a political season, and I perceive people are subscribed to my blog to hear ideas about 21st century skills, educational technology, learning theory, etc rather than politics, I decided to create a blog over on Senator Obama’s official site. It is my intention to post my thoughts which are not educational technology or learning focused, and strictly political, only over on that site. In the case of this post, however, I do think these issues speak directly to media literacy and critical thinking skills, and are therefore relevant for many people to consider– not just those who may be supporters of Obama.

    Another thing I did shortly after I set up my blog was create a subscription option for people to just subscribe to educational technology related posts only. In the past month I actually took that feedburner chicklet off my right sidebar where the chicklets for my main blog feed and podcast remain– but that subscription option is still available and is listed on my page for Email Updates, which is one of the top navigation bar links on my blog. That feed is still available, and you may want to opt for that subscription option instead of subscribing to my main feed. The way this works is I have “edtech” set as the parent category of many of my blog categories. WordPress automatically generates RSS feeds for individual categories, so that feed (which I have burned with feedburner) includes basically all my posts that touch on educational technology. These are the current edtech categories:

    Moving at the Speed of Creativity › Educational Technology Categories

    Although I want to be sensitive about not turning people off by sharing ideas about my faith or political views in this blog space, at the same time I acknowledge that in many cases my political and religious views do color my ideas and opinions, and those will be revealed in part or in whole. I can assure you that I am not going to turn this blog into a political or religious pulpit, but at the same time I do not want to mislead you and say I am going to try and never share ideas here which go beyond the scope of education and technology.

    In closing, I do appreciate your comment and am glad to have you as both a reader and a commenter. It is very important that we remain open, in my view, to other perspectives and ideas, and I am always open to constructive suggestions as well as thoughtful criticism. In the case of politics and education, I DO have strong views about the track we need to get on with respect to educational reform, and I do want to continue speaking out about those issues here. I hope these comments have shed more light on my thinking about the issue you bring up, my sensitivity to it, and the ways in which I have and continue to try to move posts focused exclusively on politics and faith to other blogging venues.

  • Lorraine Hermiston

    I also received the same email today that had been forwarded on. I deleted it and thought isn’t one of our basic freedoms in America, religious freedom? Isn’t this why many of our ancestors immigrated to America to start with? I wanted to email back the word “Tolerance,” but instead just deleted the message. I appreciated the information on Snopes.com. I had never heard of it before. It would be very handy as many messages are sent around on emails that are invalid.

  • http://citizenandsoldier.blogspot.com/2008/01/candidate-calculators-help-you-match.html Vet

    Wes:
    I agree digital information literacy is an essential 21st skill that we need to teach but politics has no place in education. I am a recent veteran from Iraq and I work very hard to keep my politics out of the classroom, I believe it is my professional duty.

    Now on Obama, since the political can has already been opened I ask you. Do you think Obama is Patriotic? (which patriotism I do believe, belongs in the classroom) see my post on my political blog at http://citizenandsoldier.blogspot.com/2008/01/is-barack-obama-patriotic.html

    on this issue.

    Lorraine:
    Since you now brought up religion (which also does no belong in the classroom)
    Why is it okay and common for the media to confront “Pastor” Huckabee and the “Mormon” Romney and Obama gets a pass every time? In a democracy, the president works for us, as an American citizen, I believe I have every right to get an explanation on his affiliation to Islam. See http://citizenandsoldier.blogspot.com/2008/01/what-are-barrack-obamas-connections-to.html

  • Dean Mattson

    Politics has no place in the classroom? An interesting question, I think. Especially since so many people cannot have a rational discussion about the subject that is probably wise. But should it be this way? Shouldn’t school be one of the places where we have intelligent and respectable discussions about these topics? We are deciding the future of our country after all. It doesn’t seem right. Yet since so much of our discussions about our politics is really a discussion of our biases and prejudices, maybe it’s for the best. As you can tell, I’m very conflicted!

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